The significance of E. Y. Mullins's: The Axioms of Religion: one clue to the significance of The Axioms of Religion, the 1908 book by E. Y. Mullins, is found in the sub-title: a new interpretation of the Baptist faith.
How the Book Came to Be Written
According to Mullins, his book was a compilation of five speeches that he gave about the contributions Baptists had made to the world. The first speech was presented at a meeting of the American Baptist Publication Society in St. Louis in 1905, followed by the second speech given that same year in London, England, for the Baptist World Alliance. The audience at the Baptist Historical Society of Virginia meeting held at Richmond College heard his third speech in November 1906; and soon after, the fourth speech was delivered to the messengers at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia in Richmond. The final speech was given in 1907 at the Baptist Convention of North America meeting in Jamestown.
Harold W. Tribble, Mullins's colleague at Southern Seminary, reflected on that process:
These speeches were so fresh and impelling, his outline so simple, his argument so irrefutable, that one enthusiastic listener asked for the privilege of using his material in a book that he proposed to write. Dr. Mullins replied that he preferred to write his own books. When that message finally appeared in book form in 1908 ... it was immediately popular in this country and in England, and its popularity was sustained for a full quarter of a century. (2)
What is the Significance of The Axioms
With such a popular reception, the book obviously served its purpose as an effective explanation of Baptist identity at the beginning of the twentieth century. Now, one hundred years later, two questions arise: (1) Since Baptist life is not static, but alive and changing, is not there a need for an updated and more accurate expression of Baptist identity today? and (2) Can Mullins's book still provide a sufficient basis for such a reinterpretation?
Most Baptists would say "yes" to the first question, but some who have reexamined Mullins's approach have vigorously answered the second question "no." For example, in 1997, framers of "Re-envisioning Baptist Identity: A Manifesto for Baptist Communities in North America" rejected Mullins's interpretation as unbalanced and outdated. (3)
Another negative answer has come from William Brackney, who linked Mullins's view of soul competency and local church autonomy with the outdated "local church protectionism" of the Landmark movement, and condemned Mullins's emphasis on individual Christian experience as unbiblical. He accused Mullins of imbibing too deeply from the spring of rugged democratic individualism and the emerging sciences of psychology and sociology. (4) In a similar vein, James McClendon caricatured Mullins's idea of soul competency as "his anthropocentric motto" that was framed too much in terms of "the rugged American individualism of Theodore Roosevelt to do justice to the shared discipleship Baptist life requires." (5)
Albert Mohler, who followed E. Y. Mullins as president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary seventy years later, in an unfortunate misreading of Axioms of Religion, accused Mullins of setting the stage for "doctrinal ambiguity and theological minimalism." In other words, Mullins is to blame for what Mohler believes is a drift towards theological liberalism among Baptists today. According to Mohler, Mullins's emphasis on soul competency and individual Christian experience is "an acid dissolving religious authority, congregationalism, confessionalism, and mutual theological accountability." (6)
On the contrary, I believe that, properly understood and perhaps given some linguistic updating, The Axioms of Religion by Mullins can still function as a remarkably relevant basis for a twenty-first-century expression of Baptist identity. The significance of the book today is the same as it was in 1908, namely, a helpful explanation of who Baptists are "which would enable the world to understand us better." Actually, today, reading the book would also enable some Baptists to understand us better.
Why Is a New Interpretation Necessary?
Why did Mullins feel that a new understanding of the Baptists was needed in 19087 Baptists were growing as a religious body and were playing a more conspicuous role in the Christian world, and as Mullins traveled around the country and abroad, he encountered serious misconceptions of his denomination. Questions were being asked that he felt needed answering.
Mullins agreed with church historian Karl August von Hase that the movement of civilization since the Reformation had turned on the conflict between Catholic and Protestant principles, "that is, the conflict between human authority and human freedom." (7) The issue in most revolutions and conflicts since that time and the fundamental issue in American politics, according to Mullins, was the tendency to extend versus the tendency to limit the power of the people. Thus, he wanted to show the world how the historical Baptist emphasis on individualism and freedom had nurtured the universal quest for freedom around the world. He wrote:
I do not of course claim that Baptists have a monopoly on these ideals, or that in no sense have others advocated any of them. It is a question rather of degrees, and what I maintain is that no other religious body has adequately set them forth, and that the Baptists have done so. (8)
Contrary to the accusation of McClendon and others that Mullins simply borrowed his ideas of freedom and individual experience from the rugged individualism of American democracy, the fact is that Mullins made the bold claim that American civil expressions of liberty were actually rooted in Baptist ideals that preceded them by four centuries, which, in turn, were based on New Testament principles. "Look into the New Testament church and then at the American government," he asserted, "and insight discovers that the latter is the projection of the shadow of the former." (9) Mullins supported this claim by showing how the distinctive Baptist emphasis on the competency of the soul under God found its political counterpart in the civic competency of the citizen. From there, he moved to the further claim that each of his axioms of religion was an analogue of an American political axiom.
Mullins listed six axioms. The theological axiom, "A holy and loving God has a right to be sovereign," has its counterpart in the recognition of God's sovereignty by the government in giving independence to the church. In so doing, the state recognizes an authority higher than itself. The religious axiom, "All souls have an equal right to direct access to God," finds its political counterpart in the American axiom, "All men are created free and equal." The ecclesiastical axiom, "All believers are entitled to equal privileges in the church," found its political counterpart in the American axiom that the United States has a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people." The moral axiom, "To be responsible, man must be free," found its counterpart in the franchise (right to vote) and in all the American practice in legal and criminal procedure. The religio-civic axiom, "A free Church in a free State," has become naturalized in speech until it is as much political as religious, the social axiom, "Love your neighbor as yourself," had its political counterpart in the American political axiom, "Equal rights to all, and special privileges to none." Of these axioms, Mullins noted:
In short, the Baptist axioms of religion are like a stalactite descending from heaven to earth, formed by deposits from the water of life flowing out of the throne of God down to mankind, while our American political society is the stalagmite with its base upon the earth rising to meet the stalactite and formed by deposits from the same life-giving stream. When the two shall meet, then heaven and earth will be joined together and the kingdom of God will have come among men. (10)
As he watched the spread of political democracies around the world at the beginning of the twentieth century, Mullins claimed, "We are approaching the Baptist age of the world, because we are approaching the age of the triumph of democracy." (11)
Mullins had another purpose for The Axioms. Although he did not mention it directly, he obviously encountered widespread ignorance of Baptist distinctives among members of the Baptist family itself. His own Baptist brothers and sisters, particularly within the fundamentalist wing of the family, were grossly misinformed, or even uninformed, about their own heritage and identity. He called them "half-Baptists," and they were giving distorted versions of their denomination to the world. Mullins wanted to provide a more accurate impression. He said, "The author hopes that in the pages which follow will be found some contribution toward the higher thinking, the deepening spirituality, and the increasing unity, and practical efficiency of the Baptist people." (12)
What is the Significance of The Axioms Today?
Obvious similarities exist between the environment in Mullins's day and the Baptist situation at the beginning of the twenty-first century, particularly within that branch of the family that for more than 160 years has been called the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Mullins's six axioms can still function--just as they did one hundred years ago--as a framework for redefining Baptist identity and helping non-Baptists understand us better. The most significant value, however, of the axioms today, as it was in Mullins' day, might be their value in correcting current distortions of the Baptist faith that have arisen within the Baptist family itself.
One of the lingering results of the past quarter century of turmoil in the SBC is the rise to power of what some would call "alien Baptists," Baptists who are misinformed or uniformed about the ideals that have defined the Baptist denomination through the years. Some of them know about these convictions, but no longer regard them as important or disagree with them completely. These alien Baptists, whom Mullins called "half-Baptists, are similar to the ones he confronted a hundred years ago, but today they have usurped the chief places of leadership in the SBC, have drastically changed the course and the convictions of the SBC, and have forced many traditional Baptists to find alternate avenues for denominational cooperation. As a result these traditional convictions are in danger of serious attrition, if not outright extinction.
Under this new leadership, a different denominational culture has emerged, one that is creedalistic, rationalistic, absolutistic, legalistic, and separatistic. The new leadership expresses itself in judgmental hair-splitting based on an endless list of subtle distinctions. It considers the essence of the Christian faith to be a system of unrevisable doctrinal propositions rather than a personal experience with Christ. It promotes an authoritarian style of pastoral leadership in which the pastor "rules" the church, controlling congregational urges with a kind of national theocracy that calls for such things as mandated prayer in public schools, the endorsing of political parties, and tax vouchers for church-related schools. This alien culture minimizes local church autonomy in favor of a denominational hierarchy that requires doctrinal accountability. Increasing numbers of these alien Baptists encourage a "return" to five-point Calvinism, thereby diminishing the importance of individual Christian experience and aggressive evangelism. Most of these trends are reflected in recent changes made in The Baptist Faith and Message.
In 1992, J. I. Packer and other evangelical scholars addressed similar problems in the broader evangelical world in a critique called Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church. The writers warned about the dangers of what Packer called "carnal conservatism." (13) As they addressed the perversions of "carnal conservatism," the authors sounded like they were describing the distortions found in the hyper-conservative wing of the Baptist family, which include authoritarian styles of pastoral leadership; the use of secular political strategies; the fanning of emotional fears by supposed conspiracy theories; involvement in government entanglement that has reduced churches to nothing more than another political special-interest groups; the use of peer pressure to enforce conformity; ganging up on and ostracizing those who disagree; withholding rewards; and the total defeat of those who disagree, which is an ugly denominational version of ethnic cleansing. The cursory review that follows will make obvious how a widespread rediscovery and application of Mullinss' six axioms might serve as an effective corrective to these distortions by calling the Baptist denomination back to the historical faith that has defined authentic Baptists through the years.
A Summary of the Six Axioms
Walter B. Shurden, retired director of The Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University, pointed out that usually Baptist interpreters choose a single core value or central motif they believe defines the Baptist faith. Then typically, they add to that one unique concept a cluster of specific principles that clarify and expand it. Robert G. Torbet's list is an example: (1) The Bible as the norm for faith and practice, (2) the church as composed of baptized believers, (3) the priesthood of believers and the autonomy of the local congregation as central affirmations, and (4) religious liberty and the separation of church and state as historic beliefs. (14)
Mullins followed a similar pattern, identifying one central theme from which six great axioms were derived. He asked the question, "What is the distinguishing Baptist principle?" and then offered possible answers: separation of church and state, soul freedom, the right of private judgment in religious matters, individualism, biblical authority, regeneration, democracy, and priesthood of believers. "Unquestionably," he said, "These are of vital importance and grow directly out of our fundamental position. But they are corollaries to a prior truth. They are not original but derived." (15)
For Mullins, the historical significance of the Baptists was this, "The competency of the soul in religion. Of course, this means a competency under God, not a competency in the sense of human self-sufficiency." (16) Springing from this core value and supporting it were six brief propositions or axioms. Mullins used several synonyms for "axioms." Insisting they were not a creed, he called them principia, first truths, fundamental assumptions, alphabets of Christianity, essential elements, and impregnable foundation stones of the Christian faith.
Mullins was sure that most observers would concede that these axioms were in accord with the teachings of the New Testament, and he believed that they were so simple and self-evident that people in other denominations would accept them. Surely, the axioms would not be denied by any evangelical Christian or intelligent unbeliever. For Mullins, "these axioms of Christianity grow out of the mother principle for which Baptists have stood through the ages, viz., the competency of the soul in religion under God." (17)
While his style was usually irenic and constructive, Mullins was not reluctant to show how some denominations had drifted away from these basic New Testament norms. Neither was he reluctant to boast that the Baptist faith, accurately understood and properly lived out, encapsulated the axioms--and consequently the New Testament example--to a greater degree than any other denominational family of churches. "No religious organization so consistently embodies all these axiomatic principles in its life and doctrine as the Baptists." (18) In a glowing hyperbole, typical of early twentieth-century writing, Mullins noted, "These truths are so obvious when once understood, so inspiring, so self-evident, that the hungering spirit of man seizes upon them as upon the pearl of great price. They shine in their own light. Men can no more deny them than they can deny the beauty of an orchid, or gainsay the transparency of a crystal, or criticize the note of a nightingale, or deny the splendor of the Milky Way." (19)
The Theological Axiom: The holy and loving God has a right to be sovereign. Mullins applied a modified Calvinism to the concept of God's sovereignty. God was not merely a predestinating omnipotence, "smiting one and saving another." God was both holy and loving. The Bible presented God not only as sovereign omnipotence and sovereign omniscience, but as a sovereign father who respected human freedom and who expressed sovereignty through the incarnation. Mullins asserted, "Sovereign omnipotence desired to become sovereign sympathy and sovereign patience and sovereign suffering to redeem. Not the God sitting on the circle of the heavens contemplating a perishing word ... but God in Christ in the upper chamber girding himself with a napkin and washing disciples' feet" (20)
The Religious Axiom: All men have an equal right to direct access to God. Based on the competency or God-given capacity to commune with God, this axiom asserted the inalienable right of every soul to deal with God. The religious axiom affirmed the principle of individualism in religion. Relationship with God existed first of all through people's capacity as individuals and then secondarily through social relations. To deprive any soul of the privilege of direct access to God through Christ, according to Mullins, was tyranny. "It is a species of spiritual tyranny for men to interpose the church itself, its ordinances, or ceremonies, or its formal creeds between the human soul and Christ." (21) As an example, he gave great attention to how infant baptism violates this axiom.
The Ecclesiastical Axiom: All believers have a right to equal privileges in the church. Because every believer had direct access to God through Christ, believers were entitled to equal privileges in the church. This assertion was not based on the assumption that everyone possessed equal gifts or abilities or that one person was as well fitted as another for official positions in the church. The axiom did, however, assert that because individuals dealt directly with God and were responsible to God, the church functioned best as a democracy. Because the church was under the Lordship of Christ, Mullins called it the paradoxical "union of absolute monarchy and pure democracy." (22)
The Moral Axiom: To be responsible the soul must be free. If individuals were to be responsible for moral choices, they had to be free to make those choices. Self-determination in religion meant freedom from state compulsion, social compulsion, ecclesiastical or priestly compulsion, creedal compulsion, or parental compulsion. For Mullins, distinguishing this spiritual freedom from a secular kind of "Anglo-Saxon" freedom was important. "Anglo-Saxon" freedom without the Christian fire to purge and sanctify it, he noted, led to the "overman of Nietzsche and his followers, the colossus of pitiless and selfish power.... Christ made us to be 'kings and priests unto God.'" (23) In other words, Christian freedom balanced kingly power with the love and service of the priest.
The Religio-Civic Axiom: A free church in a free state. "In short," Mullins explained, "the axiom is summed up in the statement that the State has no ecclesiastical and the Church no civic function." (24) Mullins insisted that the concept of the separation of church and state in the United States began with Roger Williams in Rhode Island and was introduced as a constitutional amendment largely through Baptist influence in Rhode Island and Virginia. Separation of church and state, according to Mullins, guaranteed religious liberty, not merely religious toleration. He noted that the church was a spiritual commonwealth whose members held citizenship in heaven. At the same time, they were citizens of the earthly state, and even though there will always be "a borderland where it will not be clear how to discriminate and apply the principle correctly," the principle must be protected and promoted. (25) The implications of the axiom were reflected in the following examples: (1) no public money must be used for sectarian schools, (2) no mandated Bible reading must take place in public schools, and (3) church property should be exempt from taxation.
The Social Axiom: Love your neighbor as yourself. Acutely aware of the danger of what he called "excessive individualism," Mullins placed strong emphasis on the last axiom. Humans were not only individuals, but social beings. Christians should be concerned therefore with social shortcomings, some of which Mullins identified: threats to family life, graft in business and politics, materialistic "money-getting," child labor, and poverty. (26) While Mullins asserted that church and state should remain separate, he contended that the church "ought to exert a powerful influence upon the state." (27) The church had an evangelistic impulse to share the saving gospel of Christ, but it also should be an aggressive advocate of all morality and social righteousness. "To imitate Christ is to labor for equitable social conditions, just laws, and equal privileges for men that they may earn their own bread." (28) Mullins believed it would be disloyal to Christ to consider "the political or commercial world as a foreign country to the Christian." (29)
On this centennial of the publication of The Axioms of Religion, Baptists should indeed be alerted again to its value as a re-envisioning of their core distinctive, the competency of the soul in religion, and all six of its axiomatic correlatives. One hundred years after its publication, a widespread circulation of the book would allow the Baptist family to once again become acquainted with the axioms. Then by encouraging new discussions and recommitments to them, the axioms might again serve as a corrective, counteracting every one of the "un-Baptistic" perversions referred to above, and also serve as a magnet to draw us together again around Baptist historic identity.
(1.) E. Y. Mullins, The Axioms of Religion (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1908), i.
(2.) Harold W. Tribble, "Edgar Young Mullins: Founders Day Address," The Review and Expositor 49, no. 2 (April 1952): 133.
(3.) Mikael Broadway et al., "Re-envisioning Baptist Identity: A Manifesto for Baptist Communities in North America," Perspectives in Religious Studies 24, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 303-10.
(4.) William H. Brackney, "An Historical Theologian Looks Anew at Autonomy," http://www.bwanet.org/media/documents/elstal%20paper-Brackney.pdf, 7, accessed December 1, 2007.
(5.) Cited by Curtis Freeman, "A Theology (and ethic) for Radical Believers and Other Baptists," Christian Ethics Today 13, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 15.
(6.) These comments are from a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary press release written by James A. Smith, Jr., and posted by Baptist Press at http://www.baptiststandard.com/ 2000/4_17/pages/mohler.html, accessed November 30, 2007.
(7.) Mullins, Axioms, 109.
(8.) Ibid., 110.
(9.) Ibid., 116.
(10.) Ibid., 117.
(12.) Ibid., i.
(13.) J. I. Packer et. al., Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church? (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 285.
(14.) Walter B. Shurden, "The Baptist Identity and the Baptist Manifesto," Perspectives in Religious Studies, 25, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 321-40. See http://www.centerforbaptiststudies.org/ shurden/Baptist%20Manifesto.htm, accessed December 1, 2007.
(15.) Mullins, Axioms, 18.
(17.) Ibid., 27.
(18.) Ibid., 28.
(19.) Ibid., 29.
(20.) Ibid. 34.
(21.) Ibid. 36.
(22.) Ibid. 51.
(23.) Ibid. 63.
(24.) Ibid. 76.
(25.) Ibid. 81.
(26.) Ibid. 83.
(27.) Ibid. 84.
(28.) Ibid., 85.
(29.) Ibid., 86.
Russell Dilday is former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, former distinguished professor at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, and currently chancellor of the B. H. Carroll Theological Institute, Fort Worth, Texas.